I have four grandchildren, all under the age of three, and I am utterly convinced that they are the cleverest and dearest little children in the world. (It has been somewhat of a surprise to find that most other grandparents feel the same about their grandchildren!)
I have praised little Liam: “you are so clever to speak Thai as well as you do English”. And praised little Jake: “you are so clever to build that complicated Lego castle”
Praise like this is good, right? After all, it will make both little boys realise they are really clever and increase their self-esteem, so it must be good for them, right?
Well, not only is that wrong, but too much of that type of praise is actually dangerous for the developing boys, according to the highly respected scientist Carol Dweck. She found that too much praise boosting self-esteem actually results in class grades sinking rather than increasing!
Not all praise is equal
It turns out that not all praise is equal, and the impact of the praise is dependent on the type of praise given. Give the wrong type of praise, and you set your child to fail. Give the right type of praise, and you set your child up to succeed.
So what makes one type of praise effective, whereas the other dangerous?
Praise is important but not just any praise. When we praise children for how clever they are, and their intelligence, we create and reinforce the belief in their minds that intelligence is a given or constant. It is something that they either have or don’t have. The mindset of the child who has been praised for being clever goes something like: I am clever, and so I don’t need to try hard.
Then when they inevitably come to a problem where they struggle, they feel inadequate. Because failure feels shameful, they don’t even try, and so rather than be humiliated, they just give up.
Effective praise is based on what they do, rather than on their innate ability.
In contrast, praise for the effort the children have made, and what they have done, has a completely different outcome. These children have something that they can control when they struggle — the amount of effort they put in. They try harder, stay task focused for longer, and even choose harder tasks.
They develop grit and determination which enables them to persevere and ultimately succeed both as children and later on in life as adults.
What about the amount of praise?
Only young children under the age of seven take praise at face value. Thereafter they become as suspicious of the sincerity of praise as do adults. By the age of 12, children believe that praise from a teacher is not a sign that you did well, but rather a sign that you need encouragement because you lack ability! Once a child believes praise is not sincere, they then discount not only that insincere praise, but also sincere praise as well.
So how should you praise?
The trick is teaching our children that the brain acts like a muscle and intelligence can be developed. Our abilities are not fixed, and praise can substantially alter children’s willingness to try harder, even at things are not so good at.
So praise the process the child uses, rather than the outcome. In other words, praise the way the child sticks to the task: “it’s really good to see how you keep on trying and not give up”.
Thus rather than saying: “what a beautiful painting, you’re such a clever artist” say: “I just love the way you persisted in finding the right combination of colours”
I have tried to apply process praise rather than outcome praise myself. So I told little Liam: “I really liked the way you kept on speaking to the driver in his home language, even when he did not understand you at first”, and to little Jake with his Lego castle: “I am so impressed that you worked the whole afternoon to build this beautiful castle.”
It’s not easy to praise focusing on the process, but the more I practice, the easier its becoming. Why don’t you try it too?